EDITOR’S NOTE: They say a photo is worth a 1,000 words. For the next few weeks leading up to the October Destin Fishing Rodeo, The Destin Log will be taking a look back at some iconic Rodeo photos found in the “Fifty Years of Fishing the Destin Fishing Rodeo” book and relay the story behind the photo — hopefully in less than 1,000 words.
He wanted to catch a big one, and Capt. John Holley of the Reel Doc didn’t disappoint.
It was the second day of the Destin Fishing Rodeo in 1997 when Robert Copeland of Niceville landed a 106.9-pound amberjack that would put him in the Rodeo books.
Copeland, who had been fishing with Holley since 1987 said, “Once you fished with him, you were going back.”
Copeland, now 58, said he had caught a 45-pound amberjack with Holley one day, but Holley told him he didn’t consider it a big amberjack until it was 70-pounds or better.
“I looked at him and said I want to catch a big amberjack with you … that started what happened,” Copeland said.
In 1996, Copeland had caught an 83 pounder with Holley, but 1997 was the year.
Copeland said they weren’t even scheduled to go fishing on that particular day, but due to an accident, Holley had an opening and he took it.
“We were targeting big amberjack,” Holley said. “He always brought a nice group with him … they were patient and like to fish for the big one.
“So we gave him the biggest rod and biggest bait,” he added.
Once they got out to the spot, another boat was fishing it but didn’t have any luck, noting this particular boat had been on it for about a half hour.
However, Holley and company had the right bait – bonito.
“The first bait in the water caught that amberjack,” Copeland said. “I was using a big 80-wide International reel, with about 200-pound test monofilament.
“It had a lead weight that was about the size a Campbell’s Soup can to get it down that far," he added. "And the line was as big or bigger than the lead out of a pencil … a No. 2 pencil.”
They had stopped in about 150 feet of water to drop a weight to the bottom to mark the line as to how far down they wanted to fish.
“I had the rod and as it started going down, I’m just looking for this black line," Copeland said. "We got to the black line and I pushed the lever forward into strike … and the rod just kept going. That fish had already eaten that bait and was diving for the bottom.
“I just squatted down, because I couldn’t loose a $2,500 rod and reel,” he said, noting it wasn’t his. “I will say I’m glad there was a fighting chair out … it wasn’t for us because we were bottom fishing, but as I was fighting the fish I could lean up against it.”
Copeland said it took about 45 minutes to get the big fish to the boat.
“It literally almost stripped all the line off the reel,” he said. “At times they were pouring water on the reel (to cool it off). It took everything I had to hang on.”
They finally wore the fish out.
“We basically drowned the fish … then it was just bringing it to the surface,” Copeland said.
When the big ‘jack broke the surface “it never wiggled … it never did nothing,” he said.
“But as we pulled it up to the boat I was nervous because I had never caught anything that big before,” he said.
They didn’t gaff the fish; rather they opened the marlin/tuna door and pulled him in, instead of trying to hoist it over the side.
Copeland said they never really talked about how much they thought the fish weighed.
“I looked at (Holley) and said I know this is bigger than the 83 pounder we caught last year, and he didn’t say anything,” Copeland said.
During the fight they had drifted away from where they originally hooked the fish and in the meantime another boat showed up in the vicinity.
Copeland said they found a weedline nearby and fished it, catching about a 40-pound wahoo, while waiting for them to leave to so they could give that spot another try.
“We never could get back to it,” he said, noting the big ’jack was the only one they caught on that spot.
When they got back to the Rodeo scales, the amberjack set a record weighing in at 106.9 pounds. The whole weight of the fish was estimated at 118 pounds.
“I was nervous the whole rest of the month checking the newspaper every morning (to make sure he didn't get knocked off),” Copeland said.
Needless to say the amberjack held on the boards and he was the recipient of a $2,000 savings bond from AmSouth Bank and an amberjack carved out of wood.
Copeland said he continued to Rodeo fish with Capt. Holley until about 2008.
He still fishes today, but not as often due to restrictions and limitations.
As for Holley, he doesn’t own a boat anymore, but says he’s available for hire as a guide.